Billy Wilder’s ‘A Foreign Affair’


It seems criminally indulgent that I should wake up at 4.30 a.m., like I do every day, and watch a Billy Wilder movie, which I don’t. The one I began watching last night on my mobile phone and continued a bit on my PC is ‘A Foreign Affair’, the kind of film that only Wilder could make.

Early on in this crackling smart and bitingly satirical movie, a US Army officer is giving a tour of bombed out Berlin to a congressional delegation in the aftermath of the Second World War. As they approach, Wilhelmstrasse, he points to the Reich chancellery building and says:

“Underneath there is a concrete basement. That’s where he (Hitler) married Eva Braun and that’s where they killed themselves. A lot of people say it was a perfect honeymoon.”

The film abounds in so many of these witticisms that it is hard to keep track. For instance, Captain John Pringle (John Lund), is carrying on a clandestine affair with a Nazi café singer Erika (Marlene Dietrich). During an intimate encounter between the two in her badly damaged apartment, there is a knock on the door.

Erika: Who’s there?

Pringle: With my luck, it is Eisenhower.

Then there is this. As the plane carrying the congressional delegation is about to land at Berlin, the members are getting a glimpse of the damage caused by the allied bombing. They are discussing reconstruction and that inevitably brings out differences in approach with some of them not particularly in favor of pouring dollars.

First Congressman: I object to dollar diplomacy.

Second Congressman: But you don’t mind sending the food.

First Congressman: If you send a hungry man a loaf of bread, it’s democracy. If you leave the wrapper on, it’s imperialism.

Ceaseless wit was often the hallmark of Wilder movies. One-liners just keep flowing in his films. That perhaps had everything to do with the fact that Wilder was also a journalist once. Of course, looking at the current crop of journalists one might not quite make the connection between them and wit. Wilder, who is in his career spanning over 50 years made 60 films which brilliantly illuminated the Golden Age of Hollywood, counted Satyajit Ray among his many admirers.

In my post yesterday I spoke of rewards and reprimands in a different context but there are those in being an independent journalist and writer the way I have been for over 15 years now. Rewards include the freedom to start watching a movie at any time and reprimands come in the form of home eviction notices and frenzied collection calls. You can dodge only one of those, although once evicted, I suppose, collection calls do cease.

Some day soon I will treat myself to a Billy Wilder retrospective on DVD, just as soon as I am able to find enough money to buy the set. In the mean time, YouTube must remain that wondrous source of free entertainment where you can pause and rewind, pause and fast forward or just pause and stay paused a movie any number of times.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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